On the line between tourist and local

I am slowly going deaf.  There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local.  Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise.  I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss.  This city is adopting me. 

My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock.  Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era.  Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime.  My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn.  The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.

Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket.  It is a hopeless task.  Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure.  We are all sinking into deafness in this city.  My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.

“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.

“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. 

Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.

Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun.  With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume.  A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner.  They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them.   It is nearing time to pray.

The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith.  The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another.  Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. 

Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.

As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves.  Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. 

Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.  

“You need a louder horn,” I say. 

“Aywa,” he nods in agreement.  Yes. 

I sit back in my seat and smile.  I have begun to belong.


This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.


43 thoughts on “On the line between tourist and local

    • Thanks Rasha, it’s so worth the noise and chaos though. If you’re a light sleeper just don’t book a hotel downtown – try Zamalek (much quieter and still central) instead!

  1. First of all, i would like to thank you for this post. I definitely can relate to you, I lived in Iraq and Syria. I remember people honking the horns of cars for no reason and everything there was very loud. Have you seen the vendors? They yell really loud to announce their objects. Thank you again for reminding me of the middle east.

    • Afwan! I love Syria. I’ve spent a lot of quality time there as well. Glad it reminded you of the Middle East 🙂

      • I ran guided tours through Syria for four years (up until the May 2011). I used to go to Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and Krak super-regularly but I’ve travelled all over independently. It really was (and will be again) the most wonderful country to travel through wasn’t it.

  2. I’m happy that you’re starting to feel a sense of belonging in the streets of Cairo. I just hope you can find a decent doctor for your ears before you go totally deaf.

  3. Great post!! And so eloquent. It certainly evokes memories of starting to figure things out the first time I traveled alone for an extended period. Hope your ears are ok!

  4. Wow. I don’t think I could do it. Really loud cities stress me out after a few hours. I enjoy the buzz and energy for a short while but then…. no way. I always find myself wondering why no one realizes that their constant honking does absolutely NO good.

  5. A brilliant piece of writing, bravo. My ears are ringing with the noise!

  6. Beautifully written, the images are so vivid. Thank you for taking me on this journey.

    • Thanks. Delhi is another of those great world metropolises which we all love and hate in equal measures. I adore Delhi. Hope you’re having fun there.

  7. Great post, the writing is really tight. It hums. I’ve always heard that traffic was horrible in Cairo, though I never thought I’d hear it so well stated.

  8. nice posts, now i need your opinion about this “what to live for?” what are your reasons for living? and how do you live? please inspire me more , thank you

  9. Your story took me back to Cairo. Although not a local, have been to Cairo many times. My other most vivid memory would be of my stomach in my throat as they hurtle at dangerous speeds down the highways.

    • I now live in a teensy-tiny village but my normal voice is a shout as if I’m still battling the noise. Yep. I think there’s permanent hearing loss 🙂

  10. Ahhh, that’s the Cairo I know and love! I lived in Khartoum for several years, and Cairo was a favorite escape. Although the Khartoum traffic was not as manic as Cairo, it had its own funky quirks. Thanks for this jewel of an article and congrats on the FP – richly deserved. All the best, Terri

  11. What an evocative portrait of Cairo. I felt like I was back there while reading your post.

    I’ve always wondered what it is that made ex-pats feel at home in their new country – perhaps it’s being familiar and comfortable with the little things?

    • Yes, so interesting to contemplate…when and how do we feel at home in certain places that are not our places of birth…I lived in Spain for many years, and definitely felt and feel it to be my home…in my case, hope this isn’t the wrong venue for this, but it feels like it came from a previous existence. It just felt right, in Granada anyway, I had spent a couple of years in Barcelona before that, and although I loved it, I don’t think I had that deep of a connection. The language in my ears, and identical in my speaking, the history so present in the architecture and culture….and then, of course, I think once the street vendors, and shop owners and neighbors start including you in their daily conversations, it really feels like home.

      • I think there really are just some places in the world that certain individuals take a shine to. And yes, once the shop owners start knowing you by name (and in Cairo’s case, start charging you local not tourist prices – yay!) it always helps!

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  15. Reblogged this on tkastanias and commented:
    Great writing! About Cairo… I also added my own two cents in the form of a comment if you care to look…about as good as my posts have been so far in this new world of wordpress blogging!

  16. Gorgeous writing! My favourite: ‘the first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another. Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below.
    Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.’
    Hope Egypt sorts itself out soon – I must go back!

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